Could governments ever stick to “nonaggression pacts” involving companies?

As companies like Amazon look for good deals from local communities, one economist suggests non-aggression pacts:

It’s hard to draw conclusions about how much local economies gain from fulfillment centers and whether incentives are warranted from the experience of individual towns or counties, said Tim Bartik, senior economist at the Michigan-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Fulfillment centers likely do benefit the surrounding community, but the gains may be modest compared with other types of economic development projects that could generate more business for local companies, Bartik said. The jobs have modest wages, limiting the amount workers would potentially spend at local retailers, and warehouses generally don’t patronize local suppliers, he said…

He advocates states form “nonaggression pacts” to contain costs of incentives that simply shift jobs from one part of the country to another, though he acknowledges those pledges are unlikely to stick.

“The next company comes along, and they decide it’s an exception,” Bartik said. “We haven’t seen one that’s really survived.”

Here are at least four arguments I could imagine people making against such pacts:

  1. Competition is central to the American economic system. Why shouldn’t local communities be able to offer whatever they want to attract a company or development? Having and sticking to such pacts is collusion by communities.
  2. If companies cannot get good deals from communities, they will leave the country. This would not make much sense to me as the American market is a pretty lucrative one but it could apply more for certain companies or industries.
  3. Local officials need to be able to show local results, not that they are cooperating with other places. They want to be able to say that they brought specific jobs or benefits to their community, not that the whole region is benefiting (though this may be true).
  4. What is good for companies is good for communities and America. This is a tricky argument all around: thriving companies are important yet it is much harder to figure out whether firms are helping communities in the ways they should. (This is an open question these days involving Walmart, Amazon, and tech companies.)

Perhaps the best argument that could be made for such pacts is that the general public – in the abstract – wins if companies are unable to obtain massive tax breaks or incentives for certain actions.

For better or worse, the decision Amazon makes about where to locate its second headquarter will keep this issue in the spotlight for a long time.

Can you be opposed to Walmart in your community but not Amazon?

Alana Semuels compares the fight of Greenfield, Massachusetts and other New England towns against Walmart and other big box stores to a struggle with shopping on Amazon. The story begins and ends with an activist who led the fight in Greenfield against Walmart:

Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He’s been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country—victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an “International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information.” Partly because of Norman’s efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson’s, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.

But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce…

But the challenge posed by online shopping to local businesses is immense. Even Al Norman, who refuses to shop at Walmart, says he doesn’t have the same aversion to Amazon, in part because he thinks the internet is the future of shopping. His wife has a Prime account, and he recently ordered tea from the website when he couldn’t find it locally, he said, adding that he has no plans to organize protests or zoning meetings about Amazon. He doesn’t love the idea that some of his money is going to Jeff Bezos, “the richest human around,” as he refers to the Amazon founder, and so still shops locally whenever possible. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be doing that in a decade. When he launched the first campaign against Walmart in Greenfield 25 years ago, he led activists with bumper stickers that said, “If you build it, we won’t come.” He knows the same can’t be said for Amazon, because shoppers, including him, are already there.

Can a community oppose Walmart and not Amazon? Here are some of the common complaints against Walmart and other big box retailers:

  1. Land use, particularly the large parking lots and the contribution to sprawl and driving as well as issues with water and open space.
  2. A negative influence on local businesses. Walmart’s prices and options made it an attractive place to shop compared to local small businesses.
  3. A detrimental effect on local social life, ranging from decaying downtowns that used to be at the center of civic life to low wage jobs affecting health care systems and local wealth.
  4. The wealth generated by large corporations located somewhere else with little visible impact on communities where stores are located.

Do these same concerns apply to Amazon? They could: Amazon’s warehouses and other facilities take up space, it certainly affects local businesses, it encourages less social interaction as you can shop from home, and Amazon has tremendous revenues (and its founder, like the Waltons, have tremendous wealth). But, it seems like the fact that Amazon is “somewhere else” compared to the big box stores – the physical footprint of Amazon touches fewer communities that all the locations of Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and others – means that people can support it without feeling as bad about its negative effects on communities. Because it is viewed as being online, Amazon is an issue for only some communities and not many.

Yet, I think an argument could be made that Amazon and other online retailers can shape local conditions even more than big box stores or other local retailers. The Internet makes it possible to act as if we are in a completely placeless world (even though this is not true) and to leave certain problems for others to solve in other places. Only in certain circumstances, like when cities fight to offer Amazon a great tax break or deal in order to become home to a second headquarters or groups in Silicon Valley express frustration about mammoth tech headquarters, are we reminded that even Internet companies affect communities.

To be consistent, big box retailers and Internet retailers both threaten local communities and smaller businesses. One may be more obvious than others and they offer different kinds of conveniences but both can contribute to a less civically minded and placed America.

The double-edged sword of record home prices in many American metro areas

The housing bubble of the late 2000s may be long gone as housing prices continue to rise:

Prices for single-family homes, which climbed 5.3 percent from a year earlier nationally, reached a peak in 64 percent of metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday. Of the 177 regions in the group’s survey, 15 percent had double-digit price growth, up from 11 percent in the third quarter.

Home values have grown steadily as the improving job market drives demand for a scarcity of properties on the market. While prices jumped 48 percent since 2011, incomes have climbed only 15 percent, putting purchases out of reach for many would-be buyers.

The consistent price gains “have certainly been great news for homeowners, and especially for those who were at one time in a negative equity situation,” Lawrence Yun, the Realtors group’s chief economist, said in a statement. “However, the shortage of new homes being built over the past decade is really burdening local markets and making homebuying less affordable.”

Having read a number of stories like this, I wonder if there is a better way to distinguish between economic indicators that are good all around versus one like this that may appear good – home values are going up! – but really mask significant issues – the values may be going up because many buyers cannot afford more costly homes. The news story includes this information but I suspect many will just see the headline and assume things are good. Another example that has been in a lot of partisan commentaries in recent years (with supporters of both sides suggesting this when their party was not president): the unemployment rate is down but it does not account for the people who have stopped looking for work.

In the long run, we need (1) better measures that can encompass more dimensions of particular issues, (2) better reporting on economic indicators, and (3) a better understanding among the general populace about what these statistics are and what they mean.

Amazon jobs vs. no jobs in American cities and suburbs

With Amazon expanding in many locations across the United States, are these the kinds of jobs communities should seek? Here is the conclusion of one recent discussion of the issue:

It’s true that cities desperate for jobs may find it difficult to attract companies if they pass minimum-wage mandates or other labor laws. But the alternative, it seems, is jobs that don’t create a middle-class lifestyle for residents, which in turn affects local spending, the housing market, the tax base, and leads to a poor standard of living. Many cities, San Bernardino included, are calculating that any job creation is good news. They may soon find that with Amazon, that calculation does not apply.

This is not a new issue although Amazon might be the most visible manifestation of concerns right at the moment. Walmart has and still does face such questions. Fast food and retail jobs as larger categories attract this scrutiny at points.

For two reasons, I do not see most American communities during down these jobs, even if they are not ideal or even good positions of employment.

  1. Every politician from the local to federal level wants to promote job creation. It is still hard to have a deeper conversation about the kinds of jobs being created. What tends to matter are the numbers. If you are the politician who can claim adding jobs (and very rarely is this the result of one person or a short process), you have a powerful political weapon.
  2. What is the alternative to not accepting these jobs? Companies might move right over the border. This happened in Chicago when they insisted on certain with Walmart. The company responded by opening locations right over the border and the jobs and revenues went to other communities. If a community turns down jobs, will they be able to attract others? Until we have either regional cooperation where sets of communities set these conditions or states pass overarching regulations (or a third option of universal basic income?), individual communities will be forced to make tough decisions: promoting less than ideal jobs or possibly having no jobs.

This issue will continue whether with Amazon or other companies.

Comparing the costs of tearing down versus renovating a home

Could it cost less money to buy and teardown a home than to renovate it? Here is one data point from a 2015 story about teardowns in the Chicago area:

The teardown candidates aren’t just tiny bungalows this time. Developers are targeting larger houses as well, particularly if they sit on coveted property. Antiquated plumbing, the absence of upscale amenities such as media rooms, and the high cost of gut rehabbing (roughly $300 a square foot, versus $200 for new construction) are pushing homes on North Shore lots near the lake into early retirement. Two properties that sold for around $4 million each in 2014—one in Wilmette and one in Winnetka—are on their way to the scrap yard, says Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices KoenigRubloff agent Joseph Nash. Both were on three-quarter-acre lots with private beaches, and the Winnetka house had seven bedrooms—big and nice, but apparently not nice enough.

At various points, I’ve thought about what might happen to much of the aging suburban housing stock in the United States. Many of those homes, small or large, will be slowly renovated over time. Depending on the neighborhood as well as the desirability of the individual homes, renovation could take place at faster or slower rates. Yet, will there be a point when many of the older suburban homes will be demolished? How long can they be maintained or renovated? If they need to be demolished, who has the money to replace them and if they are replaced, will the residents be able to stay?

From an economic perspective, presumably the money spent renovating the older homes will at some point surpass the cost of building new ones (that may also be of better quality and more up to code) and living in those. Yet, this ignores a lot of features of homes and their construction:

  1. They are part of neighborhoods and communities. People often enjoy having a certain character when they purchase in a particular place. This character is often related to the homes present as well as to a unified character on streets.
  2. Some will want to keep renovating them. (Clearly, however, others will not – hence, we have teardowns.)
  3. They may be able to last a lot longer than critics gave them credit for. (One of the common complaints about mass produced suburban homes is that they are of poor quality. While this may be true, it does not necessarily mean that they are uninhabitable or cannot be improved over the decades.)
  4. Replacing large swaths of suburban housing requires both foresight and funds. Who is willing to look that far into the future? Who has the resources to undertake large projects in this domain rather than working with the occasional house here and there?

For now, most of the news we hear about replacing suburban homes tends to be in wealthier communities where teardowns are desirable. This may change in the near future.

Thriving construction industry in 2018 will primarily build for wealthier firms/residents?

The recovery from the housing bubble and Great Recession of the late 2000s continues in the construction industry:

For all of 2017, construction added 210,000 jobs, a 35 percent increase over 2016.

Construction spending is also soaring, rising more than expected in November to a record $1.257 trillion, according to the Commerce Department. That was up 2.4 percent annually. Spending increased across all sectors of real estate, commercial and residential, with particular strength in private construction projects. The only weakness was in government construction spending.

Construction firms are clearly looking to hire more workers. Three-quarters of them said they plan to increase payrolls in 2018, according to a new survey from the Associated General Contractors of America. Industry optimism for all types of construction, measured by the ratio of those who expected the market to expand versus those who expected it to contract, hit a record high…

Contractors are most optimistic about construction in the office market, which has seen little action since the recession. Transportation, retail, warehouse and lodging were also strong in the survey. Respondents were less encouraged by the multifamily apartment sector, which is just coming off a building boom.

Although this article does not say much about this topic, it would not surprise me if most of the gains in new structures in 2018 tend to go to (1) wealthier areas and (2) wealthier occupants (whether companies/organizations or residents). A thriving construction sector could theoretically float all boats but it sounds like the bifurcated housing market (and perhaps office and commercial as well) will continue.

It is interesting to see that the office market could see some significant construction. How much of that new office space comes at the expense of older structures that are less desirable because of less popular locations or because rehab costs would be too high?


Shopping malls continue to be less about shopping

Shopping malls across the United States continue to evolve in order to bring in customers:

Many mall owners are spending billions to add more upscale restaurants and bars, premium movie theaters with dine-in options, bowling alleys and similar amenities. Some have turned swaths of space that previously housed department stores over to health clubs and grocery stores. Others are undergoing no less than a ground-up transformation to make room for office space, hotels and apartments.

The trend has been gaining traction as the companies that operate malls look for ways to keep people coming in at a time when Macy’s, Sears and other big department store chains have shuttered hundreds of stores and consumers increasingly opt to shop online…

Carving out space for movie theaters, videogame arcades and food courts isn’t a new strategy. What’s noteworthy is the degree to which mall owners are now counting on tenants that sell experiences, rather than physical goods. The share of space occupied by non-retail tenants at regional shopping malls reached nearly 13 percent last year, according to commercial real estate tracker CoStar. It was 10.5 percent in 2012.

Since 2014, about 90 large U.S. malls have invested more than $8 billion in major renovations, according to a study by commercial real estate firm JLL. Some 41 percent of the malls in the study spruced up their food and beverage offerings with an emphasis on restaurants that serve more varied fare and, in some cases, alcohol.

With these changes, I wonder if at some point the term “shopping mall” will become defunct. We already have one term in the running from recent years: “lifestyle centers.” Could a new term arise that invokes downtowns or community centers or activity nodes?

If this indeed continues the shift away from traditional retail stores, it is worth pondering how many of these centers based on experiences can exist. How much can Americans spend on eating out? (Apparently now more than grocery store purchases.) How many regional centers like this can there be?